a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What's the big secret? Part 4

Here is an editorial from today's edition of the Observer-Reporter:

An IQ test to see a public record?

We thought we had heard every excuse in the book for denying citizen access to public records until we read the front page story on Sunday. The executive director of the Washington County Conversation District balked at giving our reporter a copy of a report because he would be too dumb to understand it.
It was only after County Commissioner Bracken Burns visited the office to explain the county’s policy on open records that the director, Gary Stokum, agreed to make a copy available to us. Burns noted that the county does not require an IQ test to view a public document.
Stokum correctly pointed out that none of our reporters is a trained geologist. Thus, he argued, there was no point in giving us the report because we couldn’t properly interpret it and might in fact misconstrue it and report on it inaccurately.
In the real world, that shouldn’t be a problem. Journalists frequently have to report on complex subjects in fields where they have no background - in science, medicine, law, even religion. In order to adequately inform the public, they have to interview competent people who have expertise in these matters. The notion that a reporter would take a technical geological study and try to interpret it in print himself is nonsense.
But the whole argument is beside the point. Public officials are not the owners of public documents, only their caretakers. The owners are the citizens - the people who pay for them - and they don’t have to satisfy the records’ guardians that they are smart enough before they can see them.
The first request to examine the estimated 40-page report that was funded by the state came from a community activist concerned about a power plant in Robinson Township and whether it can treat water from abandoned and flooded mines to cool its towers. When she went to the office, she was given just eight pages of the report and was allowed to read the rest of it only if someone stood over her.
But the government shouldn’t be allowed to control how much information citizens groups can have on the basis of how well-prepared its members are on the subject. Even if, heaven forbid, a public report is misunderstood, the agency always has the opportunity, if not the obligation, to set the matter straight. It may be a messy process, but it’s the way things should be done in a free society.
Then there was a footnote to the Conservation District story. On Tuesday, an estimate arrived in our newsroom of how much it would cost for a copy of the study. It came with the letterhead not of the agency but of a local company that does digital imaging, printing, copying and the like.
The total would be $219.23 for a total of 138 pages, counting all the bells and whistles, none of which we asked for. Most of the pages would be printed on “Williamsburg white” paper, but some others would be printed on “Mohawk color” or “Engineer white.” There are charges for “special drilling, “hand fold,” “tab typesetting” and “hand insert tabs.”
For Heaven’s sake, doesn’t the county own a copier it would let the Conservation District use? We asked for a copy of a public document, not a customized printing job. But this is an old story: Make access to public records as expensive and difficult as possible. Maybe the public will go away and leave the public agencies in peace.

UPDATE: We obtained 100 + pages of the mine water report Friday, Sept. 28, at a cost of $29.50.
It came with a fee of $25 cents per page under the terms of the Washington County policy on releasing public documents. The director of the Conservation District, which is an independent state agency housed in the county courthouse, agreed to adhere to the county policy Wednesday in a letter to the editor and publisher of the newspaper. The letter also falsely accused me of being rude and demanding to his staff. One of the things that I learned a long time ago when asking for records is the importance of pouring on the honey to clerks who hold the keys to the files.

Part 1

No comments: